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What is a Thesis Statement?

For many reasons academic essays are a genre dependent on thesis statements. Thesis statements are "zoo creatures"—they only exist in the cages of academia. Writing in the wild will likely have a main idea--a purpose--but probably not an explicit thesis statement. Thesis statements make a writer's intention explicit to the reader, which matters in academia because the reader is often also the grader.

There are many styles of academic writing, and each type of academic essay has its own style of thesis statement.

Audience expectations are also relevant when it comes to theses. Since the professor is the primary audience for thesis statements, and since professors are people with professional expertise and personal preferences, they each have their own ideas about how thesis statements should be written in their respective classes. 

The best thesis statements are often revised many, many times, and are usually written after the body of the essay is complete, when the writer has already discovered and organized the content that makes up the essay. This is true of the introduction and the conclusion as well, which are related to thesis statements in that the introduction establishes a context for the thesis and the conclusion illustrates how the thesis is, indeed, true according to your essay. 

A successful thesis statement:

  • provides an answer to the question/problem posed in the prompt.
  • must be discussable or arguable. If a room full of reasonable people would generally agree with you, it’s not a thesis statement and probably not worth writing about. Another way to think about a thesis is that it indicates the primary TENSION in the essay. The tension is often related to the why and how the ideas in the thesis matter.
  • is never a question; it is an answer to the prompt/problem you begin with. You might use questions in brainstorming, but your thesis is always a statement.
  • is not a true fact or common observation. “Different people have different ideas about marriage” is an observation with no tension or urgency. Nothing about it is arguable either. “Fast food advertising is sexist” falls into this category as well. The question I usually ask of these statements is, “so what?” “why does it matter?” Those questions lead you to the tension or the arguable aspects of the topic.
  • is not a topic. A topic is the subject matter you are writing about. A thesis is what you have to argue about that subject matter. "Happiness" is a topic; "Americans place too much emphasis on being happy," is the beginning of a thesis statement.
  • requires you do more than summarize in the body of the text, but also puts the essence of your essay into a nutshell. A thesis requires support, which may come in a variety of forms, such as analysis, examples, illustrations, etc. If you find yourself simply summarizing content in an essay, your thesis is more like a table of contents than an argument.
  • is the steering wheel to your essay's car.
  • is active rather than passive--something is happening in the thesis.
  • provides a direction or a road map to the reader. It establishes a contract between you and your readers. Readers can expect that you'll support this thesis convincingly and interestingly, and that you’ll not veer too far off the path you’ve set for yourself.
  •  is neither too broad nor too narrow for the scope of the assignment. (Yes, a thesis statement only exists in the context of an academic assignment and thus should respond appropriately to the prompt or assignment.)
  • is concrete and specific rather than general and abstract. (See the examples below for more about this.)
  • is a complete sentence and may require multiple clauses and sophisticated punctuation. This is where revision can be crucial, as short sentences with lone ideas can be combined into one complex idea.

Test the success of your own thesis statement by asking these questions of it.

  • Does my thesis respond appropriately and interestingly to the assignment prompt? 
  • Is the point I’m making one that would generate discussion or argument among educated and interested people.
  • Do I give an answer to the “so what" question?
  • Is my thesis too vague? Too general? Too broad? 
  • Does my thesis indicate the direction of my thinking and guide the reader?
  • Does my thesis skewer through all the ideas in my essay? Imagine your thesis as a skewer shish kabob. Each paragraph is a piece of food going on the skewer, and the skewer is a thesis. There needs to be threads of that thesis sentences throughout the entirety of the essay.

Good Thesis Statements for a variety of essays

  • It is the job of public schools to offer comprehensive and scientifically factual sex education to all teens age 13 and above, as it’s their responsibility to remove morality, judgment and shame from the current curriculum.
  • Although most news sources offer the consumer a corporate bias, seeking the news to be well informed about world events is a necessary endeavor citizens must engage.
  • Public schools in the United States must teach students how important math is to their career and life success and change the curriculum so that students get more interested in and more successful at math.
  • Developing a growth mindset, setting goals, and managing my time are things I need to work on in order to achieve college success. 
  • Increasing academic writing proficiency, learning from mistakes, and consulting professors are all parts of developing my growth mindset as I work toward college success. 
  • The Hunger Games is the Capitol's main tool to keep the districts in line, as it perpetuates the practice of dehumanization and keeps the people of the districts focused on fighting each other rather than their true enemy, the Capitol itself.

Fixing an abstract thesis statement more concrete and specific.

Rough draft of expository thesis:  Super heroes sacrifice their personal lives.

Revised specific and concrete: Super heroes must sacrifice, like how Batman in the Dark Knight franchise must sacrifice a relationship with his love to protect her from the villains he fights.

Rough draft of literary analysis thesis:  Wickham isn't as bad as he seems.

The first necessary step with an abstract thesis statement is to define the terms. By define I don’t mean you need to go to the dictionary to look up a word, but rather you need to set the parameters of what is and is not part of your topic.

In the example above, the reader isn't sure what the writer means by the terms "bad" and "seems." Depending on the content of the introductory paragraph, the reader might also need clarification as to who Wickham is and why he’s worth discussing. Here is a revision of the above thesis statement that narrows the scope and defines the terms.

Pride and Prejudice’s primary villain, George Wickham, displays mercenary tendencies reprehensible to the socially connected and financially secure families he encounters, but his behaviors are more about self-preservation than profit in his search for a wealthy wife.

In this example, "bad" is expanded to mean "mercenary tendencies," which suggests a capacity to be bought without going into the specific evidence of how. We also get the delimiting information that his acts only seem bad to those who are “socially connected and financially secure.” The last clause clues the reader in on a possible reason why Wickham behaves as he does, establishing the foundation for the kinds of examples we might expect to find in support of this argument.

Thesis statements most often are written in the same handful of patterns over and over again. Here are some templates for expressing ideas that may or may not find their ways into thesis statements.

Here are some thesis statements of varying qualities where I identify what is/isn't working in them. These theses are in response to a literary analysis prompt—so they mention characters and themes in literature, yet their formats are very common throughout thesis sentences.

Here are some examples of expository and persuasive thesis statements.